Singapore's `wild man' comes home

After years in Asia, city blues guitarist is set for local gigs

March 26, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

O'Donel Levy plays a long, lovely solo on his guitar while a photographer dances aroudn him, searching for the definitive image of the jazz musician at work.

Levy's a big man in a beret and a dark blue suit who improvises with taut concentration, funky force and spidery delicacy. As the solo ends, he's a bit winded.

"Your heart just goes out through the strings," he says. "It's like everything you want to say you always seem to be able to say it better, speak better, through [the guitar]. You know: emotion, your deep down emotion. There are no words to describe what comes out of the strings."

He's sitting on a high stool in Sallie Ferguson's Courtney's Place restaurant, where he'll play the first of a series of performances tomorrow night.

"It's going to be OD's house of blues and lies," he says. "I'm going to tell a lot of lies and play a lot of blues, and it's going to be happy, happy all the way."

Levy's an ebullient guy. He's back home in Baltimore for a spell after spending most of the last 13 years in Singapore. He has established himself as the premier jazz, blues, funk guitar player in Singapore. He has been a partner in a couple of clubs, notably the Saxophone, where he played nightly for years, and OD's Backstage Music Bar, a kind of upscale bar for people who want to let their hair down. He has also run a couple of digital recording studios, producing records, commercials and whatnot.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in the Gilmor projects, at Gilmor and Presstman streets in West Baltimore.

"Boyd Anderson, he was the first to put a guitar in my hand," Levy recalls. Anderson played saxophone and a little guitar. "He asked my mom if I could come up to his house. He'd teach me the chords on a guitar so he could practice his horn. So he showed me three chords, B-flat, E-flat and F. That was it. And that's what I played, one, two, three, four ...

"Next thing I know, three weeks later he had me in a bar. I'm in a place there playing my little three chords on stage, scared as hell. The Wagon Wheel, I think it was on Laurens Street.

He was 16 years old.

`A very clean place'

Singapore, for jazz fans without an atlas, is a tiny island country just off Malaysia at the tip of a peninsula that dangles off the end of Southeast Asia. A commercial-shipping-electronics center, it's probably the richest speck on the map. Certainly the cleanest.

"Singapore's a very clean place," Levy says. "Everything's nothing but flowers. You're not allowed to have any dents on your car. Your car must be clean. You can't throw cigarettes out. ... The streets are so clean you could just about eat off [them] even where the buses are. It's immaculate."

He landed in Singapore when he was on tour with Herbie Mann, the jazz flute player. Mann had rehearsed with Levy and his band at the Blues Alley Club in Washington. He liked them so much he used them as his band for a couple of years.

"I got a chance to write some charts, some of my scores," Levy says. He put some scores together for an appearance with the Houston Symphony orchestra.

"Most of the music I write is from other people's experiences, not mine. People who have had broken hearts, been married, separated, whatever," he says. None of which he has been. "I listen to people tell me stories and I write music."

He played Australia and the Far East with Mann. In Singapore, a fine jazz pianist named Jeremy Monteiro, a VIP with the government, made him a job offer as a multimedia audio engineer.

"Pretty handsome offer, too," Levy says. "So I jumped off the tour."

He and Monteiro often play together. They opened Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988 with "a rousing, early-on morning concert" that remains a classic on CD. They were joined by John Stubblefield on tenor sax, and bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, two more Singapore expatriates. They were famous in the 1960s as Young-Holt Unlimited. Boomers may remember their hit, "Wack Wack."

"Singapore's a great place to go and hang out. I don't think I would ever want to live in a place like that," Levy says, even though he has lived there 13 years. "You have no privacy in the country. The country is 26 miles from one end to the other. That's the whole country. You can drive [it] in 20 minutes or less. And there's nowhere to go."

Rolling straight ahead

He rides a motorcycle, just as he used to do in Baltimore when he was young. He likes to ride while he thinks, or think while he rides. He crosses over to Malaysia with a friend, Reuben Young, a drummer, who also rides.

"I'm out there at 300 kilometers an hour [186 mph]," he says, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole. "You cannot turn it. You can't lean sideways. You can only go straight ahead. We were rolling.

"We'd ride up through the jungle and these big monitor lizards look like big 'gators walking out in the road. You put your life on standstill, like going back in Fred Flintstone days.

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